Facebook’s startling new ambition is to shrink

A wild reversal comes to the News Feed

Over the next year, we’ll start spending less time on Facebook. Those of us who used it to catch up on the news will find less of it to read. We’ll watch fewer videos, and we’ll see fewer advertisements. In theory, Facebook will make less money off us — or, at least, the rate at which it makes more and more money off us will slow.

Had you presented this scenario to Facebook executives a year ago, it would have been cause for alarm: evidence that something had gone deeply wrong on the platform, and a situation that called for an immediate solution. And yet as of today, it’s the company’s stated ambition: Facebook wants to shrink.

Late on Thursday, Facebook announced a plan to emphasize more “meaningful” interactions on the platform. Posts are considered meaningful when they generate lots of comments, likes, and shares. Facebook’s researchers have found that when people are actively commenting on posts, they tend to feel better about using social networks — and feel better about themselves in general.

mark zuckerberg

The change may sound relatively small, but it’s likely to have significant consequences for the broad subset of Facebook users that aren’t individual people: media companies, small businesses, big brands, and everyone else who has come to see Facebook’s News Feed as an essential way to reach audiences and customers. In a post yesterday, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the pages managed by those businesses are likely to reach far fewer people in 2018.

“As we roll this out, you’ll see less public content like posts from businesses, brands, and media,” he wrote. “And the public content you see more will be held to the same standard -- it should encourage meaningful interactions between people.”

He added: “Now, I want to be clear: by making these changes, I expect the time people spend on Facebook and some measures of engagement will go down. But I also expect the time you do spend on Facebook will be more valuable. And if we do the right thing, I believe that will be good for our community and our business over the long term too.”

At this point, it’s impossible to say for certain what the altered News Feed will look like. Facebook has announced similar changes in the past, and the News Feed is still full of news and video from big publishers. That, coupled with the media’s tendency to view any News Feed change as the end of the world, suggests that some restraint is warranted when contemplating the consequences.

Still, there’s reason to believe that it really is different this time. When Facebook reduced the amount of news in the News Feed in years past, it felt like a rebalancing: publishers share far more news than the average person — Fox News alone posted more than 49,000 times in December, according to Newswhip — and the feed is flooded as a result. In 2015 and again in 2016, Facebook restrained publishers’ output so that less frequent posts from and about your actual friends would surface high in the feed.

Then came 2017. It was a bruising year in which Facebook found itself battered by criticism related to fake news, Russian interference in the 2016 election, and research suggesting the platform contributed to depression among its users. The criticism was not limited to journalists and op-ed writers: High-ranking former executives distanced themselves from the company, in some cases expressing regret for the service they had helped to build. In an extraordinary blog post, the company acknowledged that passively consuming the News Feed could make people feel less happy.

Now it is determined to turn over a new leaf. After tackling a series of more whimsical challenges in previous years, Mark Zuckerberg said his personal goal for 2018 is to fix the company. He told the New York Times he is determined to make sure his daughters think Facebook “was good for the world.” His statement represented an acknowledgement, however oblique, that the opposite might be true. In extraordinary times, it was a surprising admission.

Facebook is a company that has always been defined by ruthless ambition. And so it is remarkable to see its founder, in this moment, betting on a kind of retrenchment: to a News Feed populated by fewer links and videos, and more conversations.

The changes announced Thursday look like a fervent wish to return to 2010. Reading the company’s blog posts, you can feel executives longing for a time when when Facebook felt smaller, and less consequential. Back when Facebook felt like a fun way to pass a few minutes in line at the grocery store, rather than the fulcrum of American democracy.

But Facebook now serves as the interface for the most fundamental pillars of our society. It was just in November that Zuckerberg laid out a plan for the company that places it at the center of political conversation. “We will do our part not only to ensure the integrity of free and fair elections around the world, but also to give everyone a voice and to be a force for good in democracy everywhere,” he wrote. And that’s no small ambition.

The company has also partnered with fact-checking organizations, working to prevent hoaxes from spreading. It’s forcing advertisers to disclose the content of their advertising publicly. In many ways the company is seeking to play a greater role in public affairs than ever before.

And even if Facebook succeeds at phasing the news media out of the News Feed, it’s not clear it will make Facebook a happier place. Facebook-owned WhatsApp has no news feed, and yet hoaxes and propaganda still run rampant. The company will face continued pressure to address misinformation across all of its platforms. Detaching conversations from article links won’t necessarily make them more accurate, productive, or even more “meaningful.” It may well make them worse.

Ultimately, none of this could matter to Facebook’s business. The benefit of being in an advertising duopoly with Google is that it will likely continue to print money even if the time users spend on the site declines significantly. At least for a while.

Still, it’s notable that a company that has done nothing but grow now finds itself tapping the brakes. The decade-long project to expand around the world has brought about consequences with no easy solutions. For maybe the first time in its existence, Facebook has seen the value of moving slowly.